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‘No help came’: How a Palestinian-American family escaped the war in Gaza

The Kaoud family. (Courtesy of the Kaoud family)
The Kaoud family. (Courtesy of the Kaoud family)

Helal Kaoud hugged her father and brother goodbye in late September as they set out on a trip to visit relatives in Gaza. At the time, she had no idea the long-awaited vacation would thrust her family into a nightmare.

Esam Kaoud, a 52-year-old California resident, was taking his 20-year-old son, Ameer Kaoud, to see the family’s homeland for the first time. It was a homecoming for Esam, too; he had not visited his place of birth in two decades.

The father and son headed for Al-Shati, a refugee camp along the Mediterranean coast in northern Gaza, where extended family excitedly awaited them.

During those first few days, Helal’s family group chat radiated pure vacation joy.  Videos showed her brother, father and uncles enjoying their trip and the company of the relatives they were staying with in Gaza.

The Kaoud family enjoying a trip to visit relatives in Gaza before the war broke out. (Courtesy of the Kaoud family)

But a little over a week into their vacation, the war between Israel and Hamas broke out. Suddenly, Esam, Ameer and four other relatives who traveled with them from the U.S. were stuck.

“After Oct. 7, the nice pictures stopped, and they were just reassuring my mom and I that they were fine and not to worry,” Helal says. “But of course, we have access to social media, and we’re seeing everything that’s happening. It was hard to believe that they were safe considering that everybody else wasn’t.”

The six Kaoud men, all U.S. citizens, were among scores of foreign nationals trapped in Gaza. Helal and other members of her family in California felt terrified knowing her relatives were trapped across the sea in a region facing constant bombardment.

“I felt helpless,” she said. “I wished that we could do more. I wished the governments would do more.”

Frequent internet and power outages in Gaza made communication difficult. For about 16 hours each day, Helal said she and her mother could not reach their family members in Gaza.

“When they finally did get electricity, that’s when they would tell us they’re OK, and they made it through another day or night,” Helal said.

Helal Kaoud’s Whatsapp messages to her father, Esam Kaoud. (Courtesy of Helal Kaoud)

Helal, along with her cousins, spent more than a month appealing to federal officials to help her American family members get out of Gaza to safety. They contacted the U.S. embassy, which directed them to the State Department. But days stretched into weeks, and Helal’s relatives remained in danger.

“All they were telling us was to fill out a crisis intake form, with their passport information, their name, their location, which we did,” Helal said. “And then we didn’t hear anything.”

Meanwhile, her relatives in Gaza joined the tens of thousands of others who fled northern Gaza after threats of a ground invasion by Israeli forces increased. Despite possessing little fuel, the family members managed to convince someone with a car to take them south, where they stayed with a relative living near the southern border.

“Weeks went by and no help came for them,” Helal says.

On Oct. 16, the Kaoud men approached the Rafah border crossing into Egypt, but were turned away.

About two weeks later, the border opened on Nov. 1 to let in a limited number of foreign nationals and critically injured patients. But, only Helal’s uncle Jamal Kaoud’s name was on the list posted by the Palestinian Customs Authority via Facebook. The rest were not.

Helal said the only guidance her family received from the American government was to tell her remaining family members to “wait in a safe place.”

“We all know there still is no safe place in Gaza,” Helal said. “It was a weird moment to hear from the government to tell them to stay in a safe place … instead of reassuring [us] that they are working on getting the Americans out.”

Frustrated, Helal and her cousins took to social media to post about their family’s situation and hold press conferences. Slowly, she said more family members made it out of Gaza. However, her father, brother and another uncle still had not made the list of people allowed to pass through Rafah.

Helal said her elementary school-aged sister was struggling to cope with the delays.  Helal recalled her sister asking, ” ‘Why is everybody else coming home except for them?’ ” The child, Helal said, distracted herself by crocheting Palestinian flags as she awaited her father and brother’s return.

In early November, Helal and her family filed a lawsuit against U.S. Department of State and U.S. Department of Defense in hopes the legal effort could get the remaining Kaoud men out sooner.

A photo of the American members of the Kaoud family that became trapped in Gaza amid the war. (Courtesy of the Kaoud family)

In California, the Kaouds tried to balance keeping up with their daily lives and fighting to get their father and brother back home. They struggled to focus on school, work and sports, Helal said, as they constantly feared the worst for their family members.

“It’s on our mind 24/7 … not knowing if they’re going to wake up the next day, not knowing if anyone will even find them if they are bombarded,” Helal said. “But we had to stay strong out here for our brother and my dad who were stuck out there.”

After 37 days trapped in Gaza, Esam, Ameer and their uncle, Nezam, finally crossed into Egypt Monday.

“It was such a hard experience and journey getting their name on the list,” Helal said.

“It’s just really heartbreaking that they broke our family up,” she addded, reflecting on how her family members could not cross together. “[It was] even more heartbreaking that my dad and my brother were the last to leave, after almost 40 days of being in Gaza under the bombardments.”

Esam and Ameer arrived back in California on Thursday.

Now that the father and son are home safe, Helal said the family will withdraw its lawsuit. She said was uncertain if the family would file another in the future.

A State Department spokesperson declined to comment on the Kaoud’s case, but said the safety and security of U.S. citizens abroad is the department’s “highest priority.”

“We are grateful for the cooperation and diligent support from Egypt, Israel, and other partners to facilitate the departure of U.S. citizens and other foreign nationals from Gaza,” according to the State Department. “We continue to work in partnership with Egypt and Israel towards safe passage for more U.S. citizens, LPRs, and their immediate family members.”

Helal said she feels enormous relief, but she and her family members experienced trauma throughout the wait. Neither her father nor brother want to speak about what they went through, she said — not with journalists, and not even with her. She said they fear retaliation.

The Kaoud’s non-American relatives now live in tents in southern Gaza alongside hundreds of thousands of other Palestinians who fled their homes in the north amid weeks of Israeli airstrikes.

Helal said her brother, Ameer, visited their relatives in the tents as he waited to evacuate into Egypt.

“He said it was a sad situation, seeing them like that, when a couple of weeks ago, he saw them happy in their home — and now they’re not. And they’re in a tent,” Helal said. “They don’t even know if they have a home to return to.”

Israeli forces’ bombs have killed more than 11,400 people, according to Palestinian health officials in Gaza.

Helal and her family remain worried for their relatives. She said she will keep up her appeals to American officials to urge Israel to end its war.

“It’s just a hard experience for us to be Palestinian in America knowing that America is not doing anything for our Palestinian family in Gaza,” Helal said. “We need a cease-fire. We need all of Palestine to be safe.”

Hafsa Quraishi produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Chris Bentley. Quraishi also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.